Amy Ray’s rural-route detour from folkie to folksy is not as out of the way as it seems. This month the singer-songwriter, best known as half of the socially conscious Grammy-winning duo the Indigo Girls, debuts her solo album, Goodnight Tender, a collection of old-school country music in the purest—and purist—sense of the word, fit for any honky-tonk jukebox.
“I want people to cry in their beer,” she says of these dozen songs released by her label, Daemon Records. “This material is more visceral than intellectual, with a wistful sense of the creek and the dirt, as well as unrequited love. I wanted a record that sounds good when you’re driving down a back road.” Some love songs involving dogs were inevitable.
She and Emily Saliers still weave intricate harmonies as the Atlanta-based Indigo Girls, but on her own, Ray usually amps up the volume as a growling ax-slinging rocker. For a while though, since moving to the mountains of Dahlonega, where plinking banjos still echo in the hollows, she has begun to think of punk and country as “kissing cousins.” So Ray convened some old-time pickers, added a keening pedal steel to the mix, and reinterpreted the Nashville sound by way of bohemian Asheville, where Goodnight Tender was recorded.
“I was tempted to slip in a political song but didn’t, because I wanted this album free of anything that defines identity,” says Ray, forty-nine (and a new mother—her partner gave birth in November), adding wryly, “I’m old, gay, and political, which are not qualities that Nashville typically embraces, but I had these songs pouring out of me, in a rush of feeling, that didn’t fit any catalog but country.”
Besides, like most Southerners, Ray, who grew up in Decatur, finds inspiration in genealogy. “The bloodlines and kinships in music feel infinite to me these days,” says Ray.
This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue with the headline "Key Change."